Harla B. Frank, M.S., BCBA
bSci21 Contributing Writer
Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family . . . in another city. – George Burns
It’s that time again . . . a time of parties, decorations, music, feasts, and the obligatory family gathering. For some, thoughts of holiday get-togethers bring joyous anticipation and warm memories of holidays past. For the other 99% of us, just the thought of packing up the family, servicing the car, and driving 12 hours to spend two days and nights with those we’ve avoided for 11 ½ months brings on symptoms akin to a heart attack. Your heart begins to pound, you break out in a cold sweat, your hands tremble, and a wave of nausea suddenly washes over you – the physiological symptoms referred to as “anxiety” (Friman, Hayes, & Wilson, 1998). As behavior analysts, we’re not fond of labels like “anxiety.” We want to understand the contingencies of behavior. We know there are reasons for our rather intense reactions (Can you say, “fight or flight?”) to the yearly expectation that we share the holidays with extended family – and we can explain it in a word, “Conditioning.”
As behavior analysts, we know the powerful effects of reinforcement and punishment. If, while growing up around the group of people you are expected to engage with during the holidays, you were punished by the actions of those within the group, you may wish to avoid another such experience. “Holiday escapes,” in this sense, is far different than a Bahamas get away! Our desire is to escape the aversive stimulus – being around THOSE people! In the past, you have been successful at “begging out” of family events. Oh, there have been some pretty amazing excuses, such as “Broomie, your 12-year-old Collie, ate an entire string of Christmas lights and had to be rushed to the pet hospital – and the time when you suddenly were called away to a business meeting in Jamaica for a “working” holiday. Sure, not everyone bought your excuses, but it did allow you to escape – and the knowledge that you had escaped brought you immediate relief! But, the “Holiday escape” phenomena may be more complex than just punishment and escape. In the immortal words of M. C. Hammer, let’s “break it down!”
If all that was involved in holiday angst were memories of embarrassment, shame, uncomfortable questions, etc., it would be very easy to understand one’s desire to escape the scene. It would be a simple case of Operant Conditioning. But, what if there is more? What if there is an element of Classical Conditioning in this behavioral mix? “Oh,” you say, “but Classical Conditioning deals with reflexive behaviors – a situation in which a neutral stimulus (NS) is paired repeatedly with an unconditioned stimulus (US) until the neutral stimulus’ (NS) status and power is changed to a conditioned stimulus (CS) that brings about the same – or similar- response as did the unconditioned stimulus (US).” Exactly right! This is a physiological response that we have no control over – but, isn’t fear a response to a threat (Friman, Hayes, & Wilson, 1998)? Ahhhh . . . . I propose that the repeated pairing of intense emotion (such as anger, embarrassment, shame, and hurt) resulting from the punishing behaviors of those closest to us can elicit a fear response that produces those “anxiety” symptoms mentioned previously (Friman, Hayes, & Wilson, 1998). The negative reinforcement of escaping a feared situation reduces those symptoms – immediately – and, therefore, the behaviors that allowed you to escape will be repeated. If this is true, even in part, what can we do – and why do anything?
The truth is, most of us want warm relationships with our extended family members. It is something that we strive for all our lives, which may be why the unkind comments and actions of those closest to us can leave deeper wounds. But, the desire for the relationship endures. What can be done?
Most people are familiar with the old maxim that states that a carpenter’s home is the worst on the block. He/she doesn’t have the time – or interest – in applying his trade to his own home once he’s “off the clock,” and, who could blame him! I wonder if behavior analysts fall into the same trap. We work very hard and long hours; it is understandable that we don’t want to work to “turn things around” during our holidays. But, the pesky desire to foster those warm familial relationships keeps haunting us. We could ply our trade – covertly – with our relatives! We have the tools. . . . When Uncle Buster brings up the time that it took you 15-hours to make a 4-hour trip because you took a wrong turn, ended up in the desert, ran out of gas, and had to walk 5-miles for a can of gas, think about the function of his behavior. It appears that whenever Uncle Buster is in a crowd in which the attention of the group is on someone else, he engages in “jokes at other’s expense.” You believe the probable function of Uncle Buster’s behavior is attainment – in this case, attainment of attention. So, what can you do to gain control in such a situation (Dover, 2016)? Well, you could employ some antecedent modification techniques and periodically solicit Uncle Buster’s opinion about the topic of conversation – or recount a story in which Uncle Buster was the “hero of the day.” You can also laugh at the story he told and say, “Yes, if I hadn’t wanted to see everyone so badly, I would have taken that can of gas and headed straight for home.” Suddenly, you’re in control! It’s nice to be in control – especially when you know you have masterfully turned the tide (Dover, 2016)!
Then, there’s Grandma Pickles. . . . She is very interested in your adult daughter’s love life. Every year, it’s the same thing. “Are you seeing anyone, Honey? You know, your biological clock is ticking. If you get married now, you could still have a few good child bearing years left!” Your daughter’s first inclination is to say, “I’ve avoided marriage at all costs after seeing the nightmare you’ve been through for 60-years!” But, it’s best not to go there. The function of Grandma’s behavior, after reflecting on many such incidences, appears to be to impart wisdom out of a true concern for your daughter based upon her limited world view. What does she get out of it? She derives satisfaction in knowing that she has shared the benefit of her life experiences with someone she loves – she attains satisfaction, as well as attention, during those moments of sharing. How can your daughter nip this behavior in the bud? Because the probable function of Grandma Pickles’ behavior is to impart wisdom that she feels is important, your daughter can put her mind at ease and say, “Grandma, your wisdom has guided me in my decisions for many years. I treasure it. While I do think about having a family one day, I do not want to marry for the sake of marrying. I want to have a loving and close marriage like you and Grandpa have always had. That will take a special man and, I’m willing to wait.” Booyah! While this approach may not reduce the sage advice, it does lift your daughter out of the role of “victim” and restores her to a position of control (Dover, 2016).
So, at the next family gathering, remember that you are an expert in human behavior. You have the tools to modify behavior and even control the situation. Remain calm – and use those tools to get what you want out of the event. Slowly, you will see the family gathering as a little less aversive – perhaps – in time, even reinforcing!
So, get out there and “seize the holidays!” You’ve got this! And let us know your tips for the holidays in the comments below!
Occasions for defining moments do not arise every day. When they do, we must seize the opportunities they present for improving everyone’s life. – Richard Pound
Dover, M. P. (2016, November/December). Holiday anxiety. Disabled American Veterans Magazine, 58, 32.
Friman, P. C., Hayes, S. C., & Wilson, K. G. (1998). Why behavior analysts should study emotion: The example of anxiety. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 31, 137-156.
Harla Frank, M.S., BCBA earned her Master’s degree in Psychology, with an emphasis in Applied Behavior Analysis, from Florida State University. Since receiving her certification as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) in 2007, she has worked primarily with children and young adults on the Autism Spectrum, but has also worked with adults with a variety of diagnoses and needs. She has served as an expert witness for Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) in the Colorado court system and has had the privilege of providing “ABA approaches” training to foster care staff and families.
Since 2010, Harla has taught ABA course sequences, as well as general psychology courses, for Kaplan University. Currently, she also contracts with a pediatric home healthcare company in Denver to provide ABA therapy to children with a variety of diagnoses. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.